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Philadelphia 76ers need to finish top-3 in the Eastern Conference

With five strong teams, it is imperative that the Philadelphia 76ers do well in their current rugged part of the schedule. They need to finish in the top three of the Eastern Conference standings to avoid a possible first-round exit or having to play important games on the road.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown has stressed that he’s not worrying so much about regular season wins or losses, but is pointing toward being ready for the playoffs.

However, how far the 76ers actually go in the postseason could depend, heavily, on how they do during the regular season.

Most fans remember the Sixers’ exciting game with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers near the end of the 2017-18 season as the Sixers pulled out a 132-130 victory.

The win set Philly up to be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while LeBron & Co. fell to fourth.

The Sixers pretty much cruised to a 4-1 series win over the No. 6 seed, an offensively-challenged Miami Heat squad in the first round. On the other hand, the Cavaliers had to endure a seven-game war with the No. 5 Indiana Pacers, a team the 76ers had struggled with during the regular season.

The Sixers then faced the injury-damaged No. 2 seed, the Boston Celtics, a team they could have beaten if a couple of bounces went their way, instead of No. 1 seed Toronto. Yes, Cleveland mauled them in four straight but the Sixers had a lot of problems with the Raptors during the season.

The bottom line is, the 76ers greatly benefited from being the No. 3 seed instead of one spot lower.

A quick look at this season’s NBA standings shows, if anything, the gap between the top five teams and the rest of the Eastern Conference has gotten larger. That means it is of the utmost importance that the Sixers finish at least third in the final conference standings.

Although there have been some major personnel changes to a couple of them, the Big 5 of the East are clearly Milwaukee, Indiana, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Currently, the Bucks and Raptors have a few games on the other three but, of course, this is a fluid situation. A team could tumble in the standings due to a serious injury to a key player (as has happened to the Pacers with Victor Oladipo) or get-red hot like the 76ers last year with an NBA-record 16 wins to end the regular season.

Making a high finish even more needed is that the 76ers have not done well with its fellow Eastern upper echelon teams.

Taking out Indiana (which might not be that upper echelon without Oladipo, although time will tell), the Sixers have a combined record of 1-5 against the other big boys. Its one win was against a Toronto team playing without three starters.

If the season ended on January 25, Philadelphia would take on the Boston Celtics in the first round. Boston, after a slow start, has been doing well lately. We all know the Sixers seem to get really close but can’t seem to close the deal to beat the Celtics.

Of course, Toronto nor Milwaukee would be a walk in the park either. We have all seen how Kawhi Leonard can at times shut down Ben Simmons, and who is going to guard the Bucks’ Greek Freak? Both teams also feature very deep benches. While they were making smart moves the past couple of off-seasons, the Sixers GM was trading away Jerami Grant (currently starting for Thunder) and a first round pick for a player averaging single digits in Spain.

If the Sixers get in the top three by the end of the season, they would open with either Miami, Brooklyn, Detroit or maybe Orlando or Washington. The Sixers are simply flat-out better than any of them. If they can can’t beat one of those squads, no amount of standings manipulation will help.

Of course, gaining home court advantage in the postseason is always important but particularly for a 76ers squad that has played much better this year at home (21-5 at the Center compared to 11-12 away, as of 1/25). In last season’s playoffs, the Sixers only lost one home playoff contest, the famous ‘Confetti Game‘ when it appeared they had won over Boston on a Marco Belinelli shot at the buzzer.

For all these reasons, it is imperative the 76ers need to keep wracking up the ‘W’s’ as they go through their 12-game gauntlet of quality teams.

Next: 2018-19 NBA All-Star ballot

While Brett Brown might say he is not worrying yet about where the 76ers are in the standings, it is certainly something of great interest to everyone else.

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